Monday 27th October 2014
Steam is rising in gentle plumes from the rock face. It’s evidence of the heat that’s present several kilometres below, gradually building in intensity. We’re standing on top of the release valve of a gigantic pressure cooker, and one day it’s going to blow. When it does, the results will be spectacular and lethal. This is Vesuvius, Europe’s biggest active volcano.
It last went off in 1944, but notable as that eruption was, it was a mere fizzle compared with the most famous bang in the year 79. Apparently on that occasion 1.5 million tons of rocks, earth and ash spewed out every second for days, reaching over 20 miles high before it started falling to earth. There was enough material to cover the whole surrounding area to a depth of many metres, including the complete town of Pompeii which would remain buried for another one and a half millennia.
It’s probably appropriate that we’re here a week before Guy Fawkes night, because that must have been the firework display to end all firework displays. And we’re standing right on its top lip, looking down at the blue touch paper.
We’ve come up the lower slopes by 4×4 bus, feeling as though we’re in an Indiana Jones adventure as we bounce and lurch from pothole to pothole along the rough mountain track as we climb the peak, often inches from a sudden rapid descent as we peer down to the valley below. Our last few minutes are on foot, kicking through the grey ash that this mountain seems to be made of. We reach the summit to find the inevitable wooden shack selling volcanic gifts, postcards and Coke before we meet our guide who explains in heavily-accented English the main features of the volcano.
There are two adjacent peaks that are part of the mountain, he explains, Vesuvio (as the Italians know it) and Monte Somme sit alongside each other. Volcanologists now believe that instead of forming two separate channels with Vesuvio being the source of the AD 79 eruption, they are instead both what’s left of a much bigger, single peak that was massively reduced in size by the scale of the explosion. Considering the amount of material that was launched skyward it’s a theory that’s easy to believe.
What strikes me as we gaze down into the huge caldera is the perpendicular nature of the rock face. It’s clear that this is the visible end of a huge pipe, and I get a sense of the massive pressure behind the eruption as it forced upwards and outwards from its start point many, many miles below.
The views from the top are magnificent, with the panorama of the Bay of Napoli stretching away to the west, and the Monti Lattari – the Milk Mountains – to the south-east. It’s a lovely sunny day and our guide points out Pompeii, 8 kilometres away. Despite being impressed by its scale when we visited a couple of days ago, it looks insignificant now, swallowed into the heavily built up landscape.
Adding to the beauty of the vista is the heavily wooded National Park land adorning Vesuvio’s slopes. This, we learn, is a deliberate ploy to limit the number of people within the volcano’s immediate vicinity, part of the evacuation master plan in case the numerous sensors and monitors strategically placed around the caldera start to give their warning signals.
On the return journey we stop for lunch at a winery located on the lower slopes, in the mountain’s shadow. They proudly tell us the history of their wine, a family business since it began in the1940’s. They’ve obviously grown up living with the threat of possible annihilation and don’t seem concerned by it. This is their home, just as it’s home for another million+ people within the bay area. Judging by the density of development just a mile or two away, when the next big bang finally comes – as it inevitably will – that evacuation plan is going to have to be pretty slick.
Let’s hope it doesn’t have to be tested in our lifetimes.